March 29, 2002

Focus on food shortages

Swaziland's current need for unprecedented levels of food aid is rooted in outmoded land usage and a lack of a national population policy, social scientists and aid workers told IRIN in the end of March. For the first time, Swaziland may be forced to seek relief from the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said Noah Nkambule, the principal secretary for the ministry of agriculture. WFP is planning an assessment mission to determine the number of people in need, while the National Disaster Relief Task Force expects to import 300,000 mt of grain this year - a record - to stave-off starvation.

Despite living in a fertile land well watered by numerous rivers, 80 percent of Swazis exist as peasant farmers under chiefs on smallholdings where subsistence crops depend on rainfall.

The proximate cause for the current food crisis in Swaziland is a mid-summer drought that withered maize plants at a critical time of their growth. But the ultimate cause is land mismanagement and a rising population that has put greater demand on limited food supplies. Annual food shortages are normal, but factors like this year's regional shortage of maize, the staple food, can turn a food crisis into a calamity unless foreign food assistance is forthcoming.

This month, the Africa Development Bank and other international lending organisations extended nearly US $40 million in loans to finance the Lower Usutu River Development Programme aimed at introducing irrigation to cooperative schemes. Peasant farmers will combine their small landholdings into cooperatives to grow crops for the export market.

Some economists hail the initiative as an end to peasant farming and the start of a class of small businessmen farmers. "But not business women," noted Doo Apane, national coordinator for the Swaziland branch of the legal advocacy group Women in Law in Southern Africa. "Women are legal minors in Swaziland. They cannot own land without the consent of a male relative, who becomes the front man and essentially the property's owner, even if the woman pays off a loan through her efforts." Hand in hand with a lack of legal right to property ownership is women's lack of reproductive rights. "Culturally, women are required to bear as many children as possible to work a traditional rural homestead," said Agnes Kunene, a nurse in Manzini, Swaziland's most populous urban centre. "Instead of women owning and working land to ease the current food shortage, they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that comes from having too many children." While formal polygamy is waning, Swazi men continue to have multiple girlfriends, who are expected to bear children. "The test of Swazi manhood continues to be the number of cattle and children a man has," said Apane. "Until women have family planning rights, overpopulation will continue, and with it the threat of famine."

Anthropologist Hilda Kuper's studies from the early 20th century showed that Swazis always experienced a "time of want", usually at spring when the previous years' food stockpiles had been depleted, and new crops were not yet mature. But a small population and a strong social support system prevented famine.

A modern Swazi anthropologist, Arthur Mngomezulu, says ways of subsistence farming have not changed as Swaziland's 1902 population of 85,000 grew more than tenfold to nearly one million in 2002. The lack of a population policy to control demand on the nation's resources, and the persistence of peasant farming that requires large families to manually work the land, has resulted in the current food crisis, analysts argue.

"For most of the nation's history, Swazis have known a low population density, and families grew and made what they needed. There was no surplus and thus no means for society to sustain specialised individuals, like artists and priests the family headman conducted family prayers to the ancestors at home or a complex governing bureaucracy. The chiefs lived the same lifestyle as their subjects," said Mngomezulu.

While Swaziland during the colonial and post-colonial period went from low population density to high, reaching a world-leading 3.6 percent growth rate in 1990 before the onset of AIDS, life on peasant farms continued as it had in the 19th century.

Some social observers say the reason is political. "Swaziland is a great welfare state. Subjects of the king are promised a traditional livelihood in exchange for allegiance to the monarchy," commented Jan Sithole, secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions.

"Each Swazi male head of household is given a place to build a homestead, raise subsistence crops, and graze cattle as long as he obeys his chief and does not join a political party," said Sithole. "If they join the pro-democracy movement, they get evicted."

Critics of monarchical government like Sithole say that the palace will not compromise its hold on its peasantry power base by initiating land reform that will give peasants title deed to their properties on communal Swazi Nation Land.

Although agriculture minister Roy Fanourakis is pushing for land ownership to allow farmers to obtain bank loans by using their farms as collateral financing that would permit modernisation, and ease the current food crisis there is no immediate prospect that this will be done. (IRIN)

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